Tupiza, Bolivia – The fourth stage of the world’s toughest motorsport contest on Thursday provided plenty of drama with at least three top contenders (possibly four) having to withdraw, and new overall leaders in both car and motorcycle categories.
Dakar motorcycle veteran Cyril Despres was an unexpected stage winner for Peugeot, moving up five places to take the overall lead as well, while defending motorcycle champion was airlifted out after a crash, handing the stage lead to his KTM team-mate Matthias Walkner.
Stage 4, 521km from San Salvador de Jujuy in Argentina to the Bolivian city of Tupiza, with a timed section of 416km, was run in temperatures of close to 40 degrees at altitudes from 3000 to 4300 metres.
But the drama began before the stage even started, as Toyota Gazoo Racing SA team principal Glyn Hall had to admit that the damage done to Nasser Al-Attiyah’s Hilux when he went farming on Wednesday, hit the far side of a hole and ripped the bakkie’s right rear wheel off, was beyond repair, and reluctantly withdrew his fastest driver from the race.
Yazeed al Rahji (Mini) was also forced to retire.
Then, the top three Peugeots, brimful of confidence after Wednesday’s 1-2-3 finish on Stage 3, got lost – all three of them! That cost Carlos Sainz 10 minutes, Stephane Peterhansel 15 and Sebastien Loeb 25, putting Nani Roma, in the South African-built Overdrive Toyota Hilux bakkie, into the lead, ahead of Dakar motorcycle veteran Cyril Despres in the fourth Peugeot, and Mikko Hirvonen’s Mini.
Once Sainz was back on course, he put in a typical late charge that took him back up to second – and then rolled the Peugeot into a ravine. It took him more than two hours to get the car out and he finished 2h19m off the pace, facing the possibility of having to withdraw for the fifth consecutive time.
"I don't think we can repair the car because it's badly damaged but they are looking at it," said Sainz, who hurt his back in the crash. "In any case, I'm not sure I can continue."
Hard-charging De Villiers
Roma, who had run first or second all day long, had a slow final sector – suffering two punctures in quick succession to drop to third, as Despres too his first ever car stage win in 4h22m55s, 10m51s ahead of Hirvonen.
Peterhansel and Loeb recovered to salvage fourth and fifth from a hard-charging Giniel de Villiers in the surviving Gazoo Racing Hilux, who had battled through what he described as "some of the softest dunes we've ever seen" near the start.
"Thankfully it had rained in the area recently," he said, "otherwise who knows what may have happened."
After crossing the dunes near the start, he made good headway until two consecutive punctures slowed him down. Navigation was also a challenge on the day, which saw De Villiers finish sixth on the stage and move up into seventh in the overall standings.
All of which saw Depres leading the overall standings by 4m18s from Peterhansel, with Hirvonen up to third from Loeb and Roma, and Jakub Przygonski (Mini) sixth ahead of De Villiers.
“This year's Dakar clearly has a lot more bite than in recent years," said Hall. "Mark Coma is the new route director, and he seems to be dedicated to upholding the Dakar's reputation as the toughest motor race on the planet."
Price, Honda’s Juan Barreda Bort and Walkner battled for stage honours throughout the timed section, until Price crashed out of the lead at high speed at kilometre 371, fracturing his left femur.
Walkner and Barreda Bort finished in that order, with Michel Metge (Honda) and Viscount Xavier de Soultrait third and fourth respectively, ahead of Stefan Svitko (KTM) and Chilean Pablo Quintanilla (Husqvarna), while frontrunners Sam Sunderland, Ricky Brabec and Paulo Goncalves all suffered significant delays in the stage.
Then Barreda Bort was handed a one hour penalty for refuelling his Honda in a prohibited area, which dropped him to down to ninth in the overall standings, with Quintanilla leading overall from Sunderland and Walkner - all within two and a half minutes.\
Top South African rider David Thomas (Husqvarna) was delayed early in the stage and came home 45th, slipping back to 33rd overall, only to be slapped with a two-hour penalty that dropped him to 67th, allowing Botswana biker Vince Crosbie came in ahead of him for the first time, bringing his KTM home 37th on the day to move up to 45th overall.
Joey Evans finished 108th on Stage 4, moving up 12 places to 10th overall, while Walter Terblanche had not finished the stage by late on Thursday night and may have had to withdraw.
Saturday’s Stage 5 will take the riders and drivers 692km from Tupiza to Oruro, including 245km of liaison and 447km of special stage racing over a large variety of road surfaces and terrain types, with an average altitude of 3800 metres, peaking at over 4400 metres.
Reuters, Xinhua, IOL Motoring.